Tag Archives: surfing

In the desert sun our bus does a jig along the road to a bouncy Mexican rythmn. Strange to tell, but this transit seems to contain some of the best of Baja life. As we learn however, outside of the bus, there’s a world of cold-hearted corruption that’s doing for this real town’s reputation with tourists what Jaws did for the fictional Amityville.

Ah the bus! Cheap and characterful, each one is a secondhand US school bus with no suspension, not built for these potholed, dusty roads. Every driver customises his bus to a lesser or greater degree. Ours is influenced by car modification TV show, Pimp my Ride. Hip stereo with huge, cymbal-sized woofer in the front? Check. Hip hop graffitti on the speakers? Check. Baseball-sized silver skull with red eyes on the steering wheel? Hell yeah! No law-breaking in here, hombre.

As we shake, rattle and shimmy through cactus forests down the burning hot Baja highways, cooling breezes dance beautifully in through the windows. We don’t expect to hear about sickening tales of tourist extortion in this place, but we’re about to. Instead, we’re entranced by the bus, which seems to have a story all of its own. Dear bus, amigo, what makes you dance along the highways so carefree? Is your fuel margherita mix (or at least gas cut with a little tequila). ‘El camion’ occasionally stops its hypnotic rythmn to let people off and wave them adios (gracias senor), and welcome passengers on: a mix of hotel workers and local and holidaying families returning still wet from the beach with dark skin and generous white smiles. Adults that you want to go to the pub with, children that you want to take home with you. These aren’t the bad people we’re about to hear about.

As we bob and shake along the road, we find out about the darkness enveloping the bright world outside this bus, Cabo San Lucas. Situated at the extreme south of the Baja California peninsula, it’s a relatively new tourist destination – mainly for Americans and cruise shippers – with glittering looks. Yet a widespread criminal element is biting the very hand that feeds it – tourists. Oh this fun little party and beach town has everyone from restaurant staff to police, and even doctors, ripping off the foreigners.

In restaurants in this swell-looking town, padding bills is simply routine, if not merely the tip of the iceberg. Listen, at one joint waiters pickpocket visitors – it’s pure routine. And, get this, at many more venues, credit card number theft is the norm. Often the cards are used to buy items before the victims even get home. Expect the same from certain hotels, too amigo. Most of this happens in the glittering marina area, where the cruise ships come in, and party central – downtown. Welcome to our town! Roll up and be ripped off!

Yet the tale gets darker yet – much darker. Amigo, the cops can’t help you – hell, they’re more crooked than the restaurant staff. If only their stick-up routine was as placid. These guys pull foreign drivers over just to extort cash from them, and they hustle pedestrians with aggressive threats of planting drugs on them.

Even the injured are cleaned out – doctors try to swizzle thousands pf dollars out of foreign accident victims. And if they don‘t cough up, the police are called into A&E, batons in hand. They hang these poor suckers out to dry until they splutter up the cash.

Spin doctors optimistically call Cabo “the Monaco of the Americas”. And all of the above tales of corruption were based on first-person accounts and compiled into an article by Carrie Duncan, publisher of the Gringo Gazette, the local English-language newspaper here for ex-pats.

It actually gets worse – to the point where it would be funny if it weren’t true. Carrie also reveals that the sleaze goes right to the top of the local law enforcement. In one example, the Ministerio Publico (a US district attorney equivalent), told a foreign realtor he could help solve some of his police extortion problems – for a fee $40,000 pesos. Ah Mexico, you’re so colourful and beautiful, but you’re so naughty at times.

Thing is, I’m sure there are horrible incidences of bad mojo, but we have had broadly good impressions of this wonderfully colourful, if not occasionally feral, town. Without diminishing – and at the risk of simplifying – the issue, there’s a real naiveity about the tourist crime. The Mexican government seems desperate to develop this part of the coast to boost the coffers with tourist revenue. So suddenly, an invasion of unprecedented wealth – cruise ships, yachts, Tiffany’s jewellers, expensive restaurants etc – wash up on the shores of these small, typically poor traditional fishing towns. Of course there are going to be problems.

Americans, Britons and Western Europeans seem so shocked by this kind of thing – and yes, it’s wrong. But, as travellers, as guests in this country, we must avoid thinking that we’re superior. Our country is hardly corruption free – Goldman Sachs, Fred Goodwin, MPs expenses – simply directed inwardly at the country’s citizens rather than its visitors. Indeed, Britain feels more like a sad, old man these days, rather than a youthful, Arcadian dreamer.

Ah but here, under azure, cloud free skies, next to the emerald and turquoise waters of the sea of Cortez and the Pacific, the corruption is aimed at the region’s main source of income – gringo tourists. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you – Cabo San Lucas really gnaws the thing off, spits it back in your face, and fines you for littering the pavement with it (or so we’re led to believe).

Oh Mexico, the cheek of it! Your tuneful mariachis play us songs of love on the sidewalks while the police lurk around the corner to smash us in the guts with billy clubs. A day after we learn about the scandal, H and I are downtown and walk past a parked rental car, when a motorbike-mounted policeman emerges out a dust cloud. He parks, brushes off the dust, approaches the car and nonchalantly starts unscrewing its license plates. Come and get them back gringo! $1,000 pesos or else we‘ll bang you up for driving an unlicensed car. Ha – all in a day’s work. We say nothing (obviously) and shuffle on, unease disguised as nonchalance.

Such brass-necked mischief, dusty Mexico! Oh you really make us double-standard gringos blush as we try to avoid your challenging gaze on our lush green high moral ground. Still jiggling along in the bus, oblivious sitting next to beautiful mamas and Mayan-faced children with smiles to melt the ice caps, we pass a gringo car crash. Bad move, Americano, with your mucho dinero, you’ll be paying that one off for years.

Safe in the bus, no police in here, just people with no mucho dinero travelling by the cheapest transport known to Baja man. These cheap-ass gringoes in the bus aren’t worth bothering with. Damn cheapskates! They won’t rent a Hummer and stack the roof rack with totems of success that beg the police light to flash and siren to scream STOP and SPREAD THEM (the folds of your wallet).

Though safe now, wiggling along uncomfortably butt-numb, squeezed into this re-purposed school bus, hot, we recall that we came here with different . We had heard nothing about the scams, but it seems that Baja has bigger image problems. Foreign offices shut the book on the place to tourists: drug gangs in north Baja crazed with visions of Vlad, they warned, are slicing off heads of police and prosecutors to put on public display – and throwing grenades at children to show they are not to be messed with (and it‘s true, they were and are – 25,000 people killed by drug wars in as little as four years). Quakes up there in Baja too, big ones – the Weather Channel stirs up a storm of drama around the event. The distressing cracks underground mirror the deep fissures in society overground – perhaps Mother Earth is shaking violently with lament as the innocent blood soaks into her daily.

Either way, H and I have been safe till now, aside from a few slightly inflated prices (we only pay what we won‘t walk away from in some cases). No scorpion surprises in our purses or long snake-arms around our neck. Just golden days, warm breeze evenings, pearl dives and smooth rides on sweet surf days. We’ve even kept our lunch down. And if our stomachs aren’t corrupted, as the palm trees sway, we live well today. Don’t let the wheezes and stories keep you away. Just be smart about how you travel here. Adios, amigos!

Looks better than is


Yikes, looks like I’ve been doing too much travelig and not enough blogging. Ok, I didn’t undertake the trip to blog, but I do want to keep you folks updated. So here goes, week 2, Yosemite Valley and San Francisco.


Ansel Adams wrote that Yosemite Valley is “always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” Between quotes like that and so many iconic images of the place, I wasn’t, however, expecting to be surprised when I arrived. Indeed, having visited so many beatific superlatives in the USA, I was worried that ennui would set in with a tell-tale shrug of ‘who cares?’

However, as I seem to discover time and time again in this country, I needn’t have worried. At the ‘Tunnel View’ viewpoint, where you stop to first set eyes on Yosemite Valley – and, trust me, you will stop – you look out at a picture you will have seen thousands of times, but still feel like you’re the first to stumble on this natural paradise. Even surrounded by crowds of equally stunned visitors, you’ll feel like the only one there.

Awesome peaks like El Capitan and Half Dome – which provide rock climbers with a vertical slice of heaven – wowed us, albeit from a comfortable distance (there’s no way I’m scaling those sheer faces). The spring snowmelt ensured the waterfalls showed their gushing best – Bridal Falls, for instance, shimmered sublimely in the sunshine, so I clicked away on the camera till my finger hurt.

We donned our crampons – cunningly kept from our Grand Canyon excursion, and beat a path up into the snowline of the hills and far, far away from the hustle and bustle of our pre-holiday lives. The only thing disturbing the calm were the thunder of distant avalanches and ominous signs that black bears were on the loose after hibernation. With a backpack full of ursine goodies like berries, fruit and chocolate, I had turned myself into bear bait.

Needn’t have worried too much though – the nearest we see to a black bear is, by the roadside, an overfed Alsatian which we nickname (unimaginatively) “Bear Dog”. However, we do see a bobcat stalking prey at dusk. Now, its name seems cute enough – a cat named ‘bob’. Don’t be fooled – these things are bigger than Dobermans and much more feral. They look like proper ‘big cats’ – and as I creep closer with my camera, it stares me out without flinching an inch. Spooked, I backed off and made my way back to the car. Aye, Yosemite is wild alright, but thankfully not dangerous. Just wild and beautiful.

San Francisco

What a city! I want to live here, now! Entering San Francisco for about four days, we’re blown away by how much untamed countryside surrounds it. In London, you can drive an hour and a half without seeing a single field, but not here. With giant redwood forests to the north, huge Pacific waves to the west, mountain ranges to the east, and rolling, green hills to the south, rugged nature is never too far. Like sexy-looking Sydney in Oz, San Fran’s vast harbour area leading out to the Pacific makes this town look good. But it’s not the wildlife we’re here for – it’s an uncut shot in the arm of pure urban fix.

That said, we can’t resist a trip to Half Moon Bay to kind of transition from wilderness to city. About 20 drive from the financial district, this is the home to the infamous Mavericks wave, the biggest surfable break in the US. Adrenalin junkies risk life and limb paddling through frigid, shark-infested waters, to reach 20 foot monster waves, while we sip hot chocolates from the cosy confines of our car.

Next is must-see feat of engineering that is the groovy Golden Gate bridge, whose 2.5 miles or so round-trip we make on foot. We later discover that it’s a far better to rent bikes from the harbour and ride the whole way to Sausalito (in Marin county) for cocktails at sunset. We had sound advice from a local girl I know about the cocktails part, but not about the bikes. We blew it there – we enjoy the walk out, but it’s a blister-fest on the return leg.

Every city has its clichés – but you can’t be a snob, you have to see them. Preferably with child-like eyes, but without their lack of sensitivity to locals. So of course we check out the other tourist trails hot spots like Haight Ashbury, the far out epicentre of the hippy movement. Sure, the place is crawling with teens trying to ‘be authntic’ by being street urchins, and we overhear one such alt kid kid boast that his, like, dog had, like, taken LSD, man. Yet there are many human remains from the era, and we chat to mellow hobos who haven’t left the place since its hippy heyday – still living the dream, bearded and weirded but older. Most have hilariously honest begging signs such as “Let’s face it, I need a beer” and witty ones like “Father killed by ninjas, need money for karate lessons.” The place has a humour and civility about it. Colour bursts from every surface – I loved checking out the old and new street art from the 60s to present day on house, shop and street walls. We ate in lower Haight, at Burger Grill, which offers a burger “you must eat before you die,” according to Oprah Winfrey, of all people.

Locals loathe Pier 39, apparently, but we can’t resist this tacky tourist trap. The main reason was the shellfish bounty on offer here – Dungeness crab and clam chowder are must-eats in this seaside city sprawl. So we eat our fill, getting hands-on with crab and garlic fries – and pretty much reek of garlic for days afterwards.

San Fran also offers us a good ‘civilisation’ stop where we can sort a few things out. Same day opticians replace a lost pair of prescription sunglasses fast, a mobile phone store give me a new charger for free (San Franciscans are so nice, helpful and friendly), and we’re able to burn memory cards to disc to send back home for protection. We end up sorting so many things that we almost forget we’re on holiday. So we take advantage of the city’s excellent public transport system and visit other wonderful neighbourhoods such as Mission and Castro, sampling the excellent nightlife on offer. This would be a great city to live in, and it’s a fantastic one to visit. Next stop, the South Pacific!

Peace and love, 2010.

Wild, untamed and unashamed – and that’s just the town’s hippy population – Santa Cruz is a helluva beach town.

A fading breach front with a boardwalk defined by rollercoasters and somewhat tacky souvenir shops may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I kinda like it. Having grown up in a Scottish version – by ‘version’ I mean a vastly inferior version of a beach town (and by ‘grown up’ I mean Peter Pan syndrome) – I’m immediately fascinated by these kind of places.

What captivates me far more, however, is the ravishing scenery,so wild and untamed in places: redwoods colonise nearby hills and mountains; endless swells roll along miles of golden coastline to be share shared by surfers, swimmers and sea lions alike; thundering waves crash constantly into a rugged coastline, cutting it ever-changing shapes. Amidst all this, oceanic giants often appear.

Yesterday, as we watched the surfers, huge migrating humpbacks appeared from the deep to give us a stunning show. Thrashing their huge tails to thrust their hulking bodies out of the water, they were performing incredible mating displays – massive backflips to smash the water, creating a real splash on the dating scene. Not for them speed dating in dank cafés or nights spent uploading supposedly-seductive pics to their internet dating site. Hell no!

As we watch, minutes turn into a couple of hours. This natural wonder is the kind of thing you can never get tired watching. A typically friendly local mom says that, despite being a native, she still gets wowed by such impressive displays. Small wonder when such big beasts are routinely spelbinding. I only use my own pics on this blog, and naturally I was too spellbound by the creatures to hit my shutter. So no pics, I’m afraid! Aside, clearly word had gotten out that the whales were breaching close to the surfers – before long a hoard of snappers both underwater and land-based – appeared out of thin air.

Despite the town’s tacky tourist stuff – which, let’s face it, the child in all of us loves anyway, at least a wee bit – Santa Cruz has a real community feel. And, as I have found with everywhere in California, the average Joe and Jane seems forever relaxed, warm and friendly to us stiff Brits. As a result, I really enjoyed the time we spent here – but it was far too short.

Ok, Santa Cruz is a bit more boisterous than those places down the coast; it lacks the perfect poise of Carmel (the upscale resort town where Dirty Harry – Clint Eastwood – is mayor), or the groomed thoughtfulness of Pacific Grove. Mind you, those places somewhat lack the sheer adrenalin buzz of Santa Cruz.

Aye, it’s not for everyone with only a little – or maybe even a lot of time to spend here – but it’s a fine place for me, I like it. Give it a try.